The murders of people experiencing homelessness across the U.S. is on the rise. Data from the Los Angeles Police Department shows that people experiencing homelessness are two to three times more likely to be a victim than a suspect of a crime. In Multnomah County, these types of homicides more than doubled from eight in 2020, to 18 in 2021. Thacher Schmid is a freelance journalist who reported on this trend for The Nation. He joins us to share what is causing this rise in crime in Portland and across the country.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The murders of people experiencing homelessness across the U.S. are on the rise. In Multnomah County, these homicides more than doubled from 2020 to 2021. Data from the LA police department shows that people experiencing homelessness are two to three times more likely to be victims of homicides than suspects. Thacher Schmid is a freelance journalist who reported on this trend for The Nation. He joins us now to talk about it. Thacher, welcome.
Thacher Schmid: Hello. Thank you.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. You started your recent article with a story of Amber Coughtry and Billy Lewnes. Can you tell us what happened to them?
Schmid: They were near Forest Lake, in a little, I think a little parking lot right next to Forest Lake, which is in North Portland. And they were shot before dawn, is my understanding, in their vehicle that they shared. It’s just an extremely sad and tragic situation and was one of many homicides that happened that year. And part of a very disturbing trend of increase in homicides, of - and to a lesser extent, by - people who are unhoused.
Miller: Well, to that note, how do their killings fit into the larger national picture that you’ve been working to uncover?
Schmid: Well, both of them were living in their vehicle at the time and they had been living in an RV before that, that had an RV fire, and vehicle residency is something I’ve written about before for other media. And according to some experts I’ve spoken with, it is the fastest growing subpopulation of our growing unhoused population nationally, and probably also here in the state of Oregon and in Multnomah County, it continues to be a growing factor. And it’s a challenging population because it sort of falls in between the way that government is organized. So it’s people living in an RV or a Toyota Tercel or whatever the vehicle may be, they’re living and residing in public space. There are reasons why they make that choice not to be in a shelter. But it’s something that is challenging to track.
Miller: Well, given that, how much data about the homicides of people experiencing homelessness is actually available?
Schmid: Well, there’s, there’s mortality or medical examiner data, and there’s homicide or law enforcement data. And then there’s data on the homeless population. So I think the challenge that I found in this reporting for The Nation was to try to cross-pollinate these three different and very complicated and politically contentious data sets, each of which is inadequate, I would say in, in different ways, that has much to do with our history and politics and money and geography.
Miller: So, I mean, specifically when you’d reach out to different cities or counties or police or sheriff’s departments around the country, what kinds of responses did you get?
Schmid: Matt Fowle and Fredianne Gray who, on a volunteer basis, collect national medical examiner mortality data in a bunch of cities at homelessdeathscount.org provided the mortal mortality data from medical examiners that we used for this story. I separately reached out to major city police departments in 11 of 12 big cities that have what are called Continuums of Care, which is part of the housing and urban development, federal housing officials network, that have the highest homeless populations according to the 2020 point in time count. So, hopefully you’re still with me at this point…
Miller: But you reach out to the biggest cities that have both the federal designation but also very large homeless populations?
Schmid: Right. Basically, the 10 plus cities with the biggest homeless populations in the nation, [I reached out] to their police departments, public information officers, or spokespeople, including… so in the New York Police Department, San Jose, Phoenix, Washington DC, Boston, Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento. All either pointed to lengthy public requests, public records request processes or said that they don’t track this. And I’m still waiting on the NYPD’s records request. At San Francisco, a spokesman said, “That data doesn’t sound familiar to me,” quote unquote. In Boston, I heard, “We don’t keep info on this”, quote unquote. And Phoenix, a spokesperson said, quote, “I believe there are manual methods of going back and reading each report individually,” unquote.
So, the upshot here is that national federal law enforcement officials do not require these police departments and other law enforcement agencies to actively collect data on housing status. And it is very challenging. I mean, unlike when someone dies, which is a fixed data point that is unchanging, housing status can sort of change quickly or it can be a somewhat malleable variable. However, it’s something that can be tracked. And in Seattle, for example, they said that they track and the Seattle PD PIO, or public information officers, shared a map of shootings and shots fired, quote, “with the homeless nexus,” meaning near a homeless camp, which is similar to what Oakland talked about, but it’s just something that is a big gray area for law enforcement. And as Matt Fowle and Fredianne Gray point out with the medical examiner data, even with that, which is, I think a much more sort of solid data set, there are inconsistencies between the methodologies used in various counties or health departments, or medical examiners offices across the nation.
Miller: I want to turn back to Oregon. Murders, they hit record highs in Portland in recent years. That overall increase in murders or homicides, does that alone explain the increase in the homicides of homeless people?
Schmid: I think this would be a good point for me to, or a good time for me to point out that I’m not an expert on police work or law enforcement, nor homelessness. I think I try to approach these types of complexities with some cultural humility, which means, acknowledging that I’m a white male, educated and cisgender heterosexual and, that I’m writing about and trying to grapple with some extremely sad and difficult realities that disproportionately affect really vulnerable populations. I mean, Barbara DiPietro at the National Health Care for the Homeless Coalition, when I talked to her pointed to two twin epidemics, or a couple of epidemics that she mentioned, one is homelessness and the other is gun violence. These are conversations that happen and sometimes in somewhat separate or politically polarized spheres, I suspect, and there’s just a lot of contentiousness there. So, that’s a really difficult question, I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer to it.
Miller: What did the experts that you talked to. . . what are the various ways that they explained the increase in homicides that does show up in the available data over the last decade?
Schmid: The National Coalition for the Homeless, which is led by Donald Whitehead, I talked to Brian Davis and Mr. Whitehead there and they’ve been tracking this, I think maybe more kind of consistently than any other organization that advocates for unhoused people. And Brian Davis pointed to economic shocks and the kind of the fear of homelessness amongst people that are still in housing, that can result in lashing out at easy targets. He said to me, quote, “The level of hate directed at those without housing is far greater than I have seen in the last 30 years.” He also said, quote, “Very few police report on crimes against those without housing.”. And I think that part of the National Coalition for the Homeless advocacy over the years has been to try to get homelessness to be a protected class and such that violence against unhoused people is seen as a bias crime. And that is, I suspect, still pretty controversial considering the nature of homelessness and the ways in which it can change relatively quickly. But Donald Whitehead, the director of that organization, just says, we need data. He pointed to the kind of overall dehumanizing of people having a direct relationship to the violence on the streets involving homeless people.
Miller: You point to a confounding statistic -
Schmid: If I could interrupt, I’m sorry. I think it’s also important to point out that we’re talking about homicides that are primarily people who are unhoused, who are victims of homicides, but to a lesser extent, that are also perpetrators or suspects.
Miller: I appreciate that. But as you note, that’s a pretty small minority of these cases, that people experiencing homelessness are much more likely to be victims of homicide than perpetrators.
Schmid: It’s a small minority and it’s the small minority that the corporate media seems to want to focus most of its attention on. Which is why I wrote the story, in part.
Miller: What do you mean by that?
Schmid: Well, as I wrote in this story, when a housed person is killed by someone who’s on the street, we see a lot of stories. We saw stories in LA and New York last year about some really sensational and high profile killings by homeless people, of people who were housed. But what we see in the data is that that’s a small minority, a third to a quarter, a smaller percentage. In the killings of unhoused people, by contrast, I think, we just don’t see a lot of stories about them.
Miller: You point to a confounding statistic. LA reports five to six times more homeless homicides than New York City, even though New York has the largest homeless population in the country. What are some possible explanations?
Schmid: That’s a great question. I’ve wondered about that myself, and I talked with The Nation’s editor that I worked with, Ludwig Hurtado about that. I don’t trust the NYPD’s number there. I’ll just say it straight out. It seems too low, particularly considering their inability to provide records in a timely fashion or respond to me during my reporting. But it’s important to note that New York’s Right to Shelter law makes it such that about 95% of people who are identified as homeless in that city are sleeping in shelters. In Los Angeles, by contrast, the number two homeless population in the country, something like two thirds, maybe 70% of the houseless population there is unsheltered, which is a word that housing officials use to designate people that are sleeping in places not meant for human habitation, like cars or tents.
Miller: Is the implication there that even though… I mean, this is a very complicated issue broadly, in terms of what it takes to be let into a shelter, what it takes to have those up and running. But does that data potentially suggest that it is overall safer to be in some kind of shelter than to be unsheltered?
Schmid: It may. I wouldn’t disagree with what you said. I’ve spent more than two decades myself in service to people experiencing poverty or homelessness as a case manager, as a services pro. And I’ve, I think that when there is a… it’s not like a homicide or violence can’t happen in the shelters, we’ve seen [it] here in Portland. But there are people who are kind of monitoring and there’s a, I don’t know just a kind of a refereeing, or some moderating influences perhaps, in a shelter that may help to prevent violence happening in those spaces. There are reasons why people end up outside of shelters. The three P’s - partners, pets and possessions - is something that Graham Pruss, a national expert in vehicle residency who I’ve interviewed, has told me about. But it is possible that people inside shelters may have lower levels of violence than on the streets, in the kind of the concrete jungle, so to speak.
Miller: Finally, I want to turn to the question of police. You talked to an expert who noted that the people who are called on to investigate these homicides, police officers, are often the same people who are doing sweeps, who are saying, you can’t have your tent here, you can’t live here, you have to move on. What are the implications of that?
Schmid: Well, it’s a thorny thicket. I think it’s important to point out that, controversial as police work sometimes can be in terms of responding to or investigating crimes involving unhoused people, police officers are public servants and I’ve worked with them for many years. And I think it’s important that we don’t sideline them or push them into a corner where they’re not, they’re somehow seen as fundamentally different from public servants who work in responding to crises on the street as social servants or homeless outreach workers, as advocates, you know what I mean? Like, there’s a lot of ways in which service is happening and that’s a commonality that involves police work.
However, in terms of like an unhoused person who sees the badge and the gun, kind of like standing there as they’re displaced, as they’re uprooted from their tent or whatever their situation is on the streets, yeah, it can make it harder for them to want to be honest with, perhaps, people in law enforcement when it comes to investigating a crime. But when we look at these extremely tragic and sometimes mysterious or hard crimes and places like homicides involving homeless folks, we see that they can happen in like the Forest Lake example that I wrote about it for The Nation, in geographical liminal zones, at the kind of urbane margins, without perhaps video that can be used, without maybe any witnesses, or possibly witnesses who may disappear or be symptomatic enough to be unreliable for the purposes of the legal process.
Miller: I do want to turn to one of the most horrific aspects of your reporting. You have a graph showing where serial killers of people experiencing homelessness have been found, identified, in recent years. Eight different cities at least. Did experts you talked to have an explanation for that?
Schmid: It haunts me. Mass shootings have really taken priority over serial killings, which are sort of seen as maybe a little bit more 1980s or 70s or something than 2023. But, nonetheless, they continue and they’re horrific. The case of Willie Maceo in Miami, for example, a former real estate agent who would just drive up to unhoused people who are sleeping under blankets and shoot them from his driver’s seat. It just, I think it really gets to the dehumanization that Donald Whitehead, at the National Coalition for the Homeless talks about and many others talk about and it’s why we have to push back against those, such as former president Donald Trump, who talked about homeless people darkening doorsteps or something like that. We have to remember that . . . I think of my two elementary school kids. I want them to grow up in a world that we care about human beings. We try to, in our policies in the George Floyd Justice for Policing Act or the California Act, in the way the Oregon Health Authority is now tracking homeless mortality including homicides here, which is great. We need to push policies that take this stuff seriously. We can’t just let it go. And I think the serial killings are something that reminds us of that.
Miller: Thacher, thanks very much.
Schmid: Thank you.
Miller: Thacher Schmid is a freelance journalist based in Portland. He wrote about the growing number of homicides of people experiencing homelessness for The Nation.
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